As soon as the cover of the Atlantic Magazine’s December 2015 edition, a melancholy-inducing image of a teenage boy with his head buried in his hands, surfaced on social media it ignited an emotional maelstrom in the Palo Alto community. Some shared the article and denounced it completely, others thought the community’s collective reaction was excessive — many more opinions fell in between.
The article, “The Silicon Valley Suicides,” by Hanna Rosin, explores topics concerning the suicides that have occurred in Palo Alto over the last few years. Rosin chronicles the two recent suicide clusters and goes on to discuss affluence, race, parenting styles, academic environment and the overall culture of Palo Alto as related to the suicides. This story is the latest in a flurry of articles on Palo Alto written by local and national publications, including The New York Times, Vice, National Public Radio, Huffington Post and San Francisco Magazine.
Palo Alto High School Principal Kim Diorio is highlighted in the piece, and she says the article is not as she initially expected it to be. Among other things, she is not pleased with its imagery, placement as a cover story and the choice to name students’ names.
“I was under the impression that she wanted to write something a little more positive,” Diorio said. “If I could do it all again and wave my magic wand, I would have kept my mouth shut and not talked to her [Rosin].”
Diorio says she is concerned about the possible negative effects the article could have on certain students and community members.
“That’s one of my biggest worries, is will this re-trigger some of those feelings, some of that ideation, because that’s what the data suggests can happen with that media attention,” Diorio said.
According to Diorio, her only quote featured in the article was taken out of context. The article reads, “Diorio says she often asks kids what they do for fun, ‘and they can’t answer that question.’”
“I know our students know how to have fun,” Diorio said. “It [the quote] was said in the sense that students do not have enough free time. … We just got our Challenge Success survey results back and it says students only have about 40 minutes of free time a day. That’s not a lot of time for downtime.”
According to both Diorio and PAUSD Supt. Max McGee, the timing of the article, one year after the death of a Gunn student by suicide, is one of the factors that contributed to their reproachful reactions.
“I thought it was grossly insensitive to release it in November, a year after one of the students died by suicide, and frankly I was really worried it might trigger something, another tragedy,” McGee said. “I don’t understand why any publisher would do that.”
McGee, however, did applaud the author’s effort to avoid oversimplifying such a convoluted issue.
“That’s really important because people are quick to point the finger and blame someone for a suicide, but I think she did a good job of saying this is really complicated,” McGee said.
Before the article was published, senior and Verde Magazine Co-Managing Editor Siddharth Srinivasan was wary, saying he did not expect The Atlantic “to uncover anything different than other articles in the past.” Like much of the student body, Srinivasan felt ambivalent after reading it — he did not repudiate the author’s claims altogether, but found numerous problems with the approach.
“In some aspects, the research was more thorough and more well done than I expected and in some aspects it was more sensationalized than I expected,” Srinivasan said.
Junior Andrea O’Riordan took issue with the lurid description of the train tracks in the introduction as well as the ending line of the article, which reads: “They’re kids, so they can still forget.”
“That [the ending] just struck me as being so, so wrong to insinuate that just because we’re still minors, we can forget traumatic experiences,” she said.
In spite of the sensationalism, Srinivasan said he appreciated the author’s incorporation of scientific studies, such as the “U-curve” phenomenon.
“It’s definitely interesting that she chose to bring the studies in because it really relates it to a more national issue rather than focusing in on particularly Palo Alto,” he said. “I think that was important to get the balance of student voice and clinical study.”
According to Srinivasan, the article’s style of narration gives too much creative control to the author, which could embed a hidden bias within the story.
“If I’m just a reader who does not have much knowledge about the Palo Alto community other than what’s in the article I feel like I’m swayed to a direction which is purely imposed by the writer herself,” Srinivasan said. “Choosing to narrate about the students rather than have them speak for themselves — I feel like it doesn’t represent the students as well as it could have.”
Gunn High School senior and editor-in-chief of the Gunn Oracle Shawna Chen echoed this sentiment, saying that the article would have had more journalistic merit if Rosin had spoken to more students. Furthermore, Chen pointed out that by making only cursory references to the schools’ various campaigns to combat the issue of student stress, Rosin conveyed a sense of defeatism.
“I can’t say that what her article said isn’t true,” Chen said. “But if she spent some time talking about the growth we’ve had as a community, how we’ve changed, how we’ve moved past it, all these different initiatives that have been taken by parents and adults and students, I think that would have given students hope.”
It remains contested whether this article offers crucial new insights on the problem at hand or if it is a piece tainted with sensationalism, perhaps even both, but one thing is certain — it has helped to paint a stark picture of Palo Alto.
“I don’t want our reputation nationally and beyond our community to be just about this,” Diorio said. “I wish there was a way to change the narrative so that our story is, ‘Look at all the amazing things we do, and look at all the talented students we have, and look at all the compassion and care and look at how we’ve come together as a community and responded to this tragedy.’”